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Terrific period mystery.
on 27 January 2003
A mystery which should keep even the most jaded reader intrigued and involved, Dark Matter begins like a typical Sherlock Holmes mystery, with Sir Isaac Newton interviewing Christopher Ellis to work as his assistant as Warden of the Royal Mint, and deducing all manner of personal information from clues he notices on Ellis's person.
But here the similarities end. The murders which Newton and Ellis soon investigate are part of a much broader picture of intrigue than anything in the Sherlock Holmes series, here involving the recoinage of England's silver and gold, battles against smugglers and counterfeiters, the enmity and warfare between England and France, the continuing hatred between Catholics and Protestants in both countries, the missing treasure of the Knights Templar, and alchemy, astronomy, scientific study, and even the ciphers developed a hundred years earlier by Rene Descartes.
Newton remains throughout the novel as a somewhat mysterious character, formal, scholarly, honest, and industrious, but personally remote, even from his niece, with whom he lives. Ellis, on the other hand, quickly engages the reader with his innate charm and physicality--he's an ebullient 20-year-old, as much at home in bars and brothels as he is in the lab or the Mint.
As this surprisingly compatible team investigates several grotesquely staged murders, while battling the political status quo at the Tower of London, where the Mint is located, the reader is taken on a wide-ranging and colorful tour of the city from its royal houses to its bawdy houses, its churches to its opium dens, and its bookshops to its prisons. An informer with a steel nose, a man half eaten by a lion in the Tower, a goldsmith smuggling silver to France, and real characters, such as the vulgar Daniel Defoe and the likeable Samuel Pepys, keep the reader constantly engaged.
The author cleverly and unobtrusively provides several recaps of the action and what it means within the context of the narrative, just at the point when the story may become a bit confusing, clearly remembering that the reader may be unfamiliar with this period and its history. He does burden his story with a large number of characters who appear only briefly and provide scant information, but this is a minor quibble in this ambitious and entertaining novel of enormous scope and historical perspective. Mary Whipple